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State College Borough Council Votes Down 'Summers on Allen' Proposal

by on December 17, 2019 12:00 AM

By a 4-3 vote on Monday night, State College Borough Council rejected a proposal that would have made the 100 block of South Allen Street a pedestrian plaza for two months next summer.

Council members David Brown, Catherine Dauler, Janet Engeman and Theresa Lafer voted no. Jesse Barlow, Dan Murphy and Evan Myers voted in favor.

Lafer, who previously expressed concerns about the street closure's impact on traffic and businesses, said that after a number of community members expressed support for the project during a public hearing on Dec. 2, she was surprised by how many people she spoke to, of varying ages, who were not in favor of the proposal.

"Whether I’m talking with people from Foxdale (Village retirement community) or young professionals in the community, most people do not see this as a place that they would come to," Lafer said.

Centre Foundation proposed the "Summers on Allen" project, which would have used a $135,000 grant from the Knight Foundation's donor-advised fund to create the pedestrian plaza from May 11 (the day after Penn State's spring commencement) to July 3, clearing out in time for the Central PA 4th Fest parade, followed by set up for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

Brad and Andrea Groznik, of Groznik PR, would have managed the project, which planned for landscaping, a mix of seating, a small stage and a kids play area. Several restaurants planned to apply for permits for expanded outdoor seating while the street was closed to vehicle traffic. Regular summer events that occur during the closure period — such as  Rotary Ice Cream Fest, and Central PA Theatre and Dance Fest — would have been incorporated along with a slate of additional programming, ranging from a community dinner to mini-golf to musical events.

The idea was to spark activity and draw more people downtown during a traditionally slow time of year.

Groznik said in October that 20 of 22 impacted businesses signed off in favor of the temporary pedestrian plaza. At the public hearing earlier this month, representatives of the two establishments not in favor — Rapid Transit Sports and Woodring's Floral Gardens — said they believed closing the street to traffic for two months would be a significant detriment to their businesses.

"I’ve had people say they will not be able to continue going to Woodring’s or Rapid Transit, and they mean it," Lafer said on Monday, adding that those businesses fear they will "go broke over the summer because of the loss of normal summer customers."

Myers responded that he did not believe it was likely that the loss of parking spaces only on Allen Street would preclude people from going to those businesses. He also said that the loading zones designated as part of the plan appeared to be larger than what is normally available.

"If we’re going to have downtown be more than it is, be a better representation of ourselves and the community, it needs to be a destination…  A place can be a destination through all kinds of ways, including creating some exciting and different things," he said. "I think this is just an attempt to do that."

Lafer also said she was worried about how quickly Alpha Fire Company would be able to respond to a fire on the block. Company leadership sent a letter to the borough saying they could manage response and that trucks would be able to push proposed water barriers out of the way at intersections. An emergency lane was also built into the design of the plaza.

But Lafer said she was not convinced based on the communication from the fire department that the plan was fully safe.

"The thing that concerns me most is that that is the iconic block… That’s what everybody wants to come back to," she said. "Those are older buildings. They do not have sprinkler systems. The extra 10 or 15 minutes it could take to get to them could be the end of an entire block."

Myers said that the street is closed for events like Arts Festival and First Night and that a fire could happen at any time.

"If the fire situation on Allen Street is so tenuous that folks are legitimately concerned that the whole block would go up in a blaze, that’s a totally different issue we need to look at and seriously consider, whether it’s closed or not," he said.

Brown said that while he did not oppose the concept, he was concerned about several issues if it was done in 2020. Among those is traffic, with building construction continuing on Beaver Avenue and at the corner of West College Avenue and South Atherton Street, as well as preliminary work PennDOT may do on the continuation of the Atherton Street project, which is not expected to move forward in earnest until 2021.

Like Brown, Dauler said she believed it might make more sense to move the plaza to the 200 block of South Allen Street, where fewer businesses would be impacted, and where she said it could have a greater chance at long term success as plans move ahead for the town center redevelopment project.

Molly Kunkel, executive director of Centre Foundation, said the restaurants and businesses on the 100 block were a key part of the pedestrian plaza concept.

"That activity level and that business engagement is actually really critical to this kind of a pedestrian plaza..." she said, adding that putting it on the 200 block could actually cause more of a traffic burden because of its heavy use for connecting to outer parts of the borough to the south and beyond.

Dauler and Brown also said events and activities would be vital to the plaza's success and were unsure if enough was being planned.

"I do think there needs to be a significant amount of programming down there to draw people in," Kunkel said. "I don’t think it needs to be 24 hours a day or 12 hours a day, but I do think for much of the day it’s important as much as we can to keep the space lively and engaging for people."

An initial motion to postpone the vote until further discussion could occur was later voted down 7-0 after council members agreed they had enough information to vote. Dauler said that if the plaza were to be approved, it would be important not to have further delay so that the organizers would have enough time.

Myers cited the borough's strategic plan, formally adopted earlier in the evening, and its goals to make downtown more inviting and vibrant as a reason council should vote in favor.

"I understand all the concerns. I understand the trepidation," Myers said. "But I also understand the need to do some experimentation, the need to look at things in a different way and try it and see if it works."

Lafer said she does not oppose trying something new, but did "not think this was fully thought out.

"We may need community engagement. I won’t argue that. I’m just not sure this engages the community and there is a potential for real problems."

Dauler and Brown will leave council at the end of the year and will be replaced by Deanna Behring and Peter Marshall. It was not immediately clear if Centre Foundation and Groznik PR might propose the plaza again or if council would take it up again in the new year.

Centre Foundation previously submitted a similar proposal in 2018, but withdrew it after determining more discussion was needed. It was not submitted for 2019 because of planned summer roadwork and traffic impacts on surrounding downtown streets.

The idea goes back much further, however. Proposals to make Allen Street a pedestrian mall were floated two other times in the past 20 years, and it's been discussed for about a century. Nittany Valley Society's Chris Buchignani said that his research has found mentions of a possible Allen Street mall in news clippings dating back to the 1920s, and a proposal reached the planning stage in 1965.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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